Guest Post: Alison Hilton explains how Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life reinvents their Museums at Night events

Today’s guest post about the evolution of  Museums at Night events comes from veteran event organiser Alison Hilton, who is Marketing Officer at MERL (the Museum of English Rural Life).


As the Museum’s Marketing Officer I have been involved in MERL’s ‘Museum at Night’ events since 2007 (when they were part of Museums and Galleries Month).

One of the main reasons for getting involved with this high profile national campaign has been to raise awareness of the Museum and its collections, whilst attracting and developing  audiences. The common thread running through our ‘at Night’ events has been – perhaps not terribly scientifically – ‘Give it a go!’

Film screening

In 2007, we couldn’t resist signing up to show the film Night at the Museum.  It was the first time we’d run a family event in the evening, and we were delighted that it was greeted with enthusiasm by local families.


A group of children sitting in a museum rotunda with bedding

Young visitors to a Museum of English Rural Life sleepover

Emboldened, our Learning Manager drew on her experience at the British Museum and ran Family Sleepovers for the following two years. These were hugely popular and with very little marketing effort or spend, we could have sold out twice over.

The families involved all had a fantastic time. However, sleepovers are great fun but resource-heavy, and benefited a relatively small number of families.

Live music for adults

In 2010, we decided to try out something completely different. Being a University Museum, our adult events tend to be more academic – seminars and lectures.

For Museums at Night, we opted for our first late opening aimed at adults. It was low key but with the addition of live music, the atmosphere was relaxing and sociable.

We regretted our decision to finish at 9pm and promised ourselves a proper ‘late’ in 2011!

A group of well-dressed people waiting for excitement to begin

Staff and volunteers were ready to party later into the evening

1950s party

As part of our 60th anniversary events programme, we put on a themed 50s Night with the help of a large team of volunteers and funding from the University Arts Committee to pay for an excellent band. In all its 60 years the Museum had certainly never seen anything quite like the party that ensued!

A colourfully dressed couple swing dancing in a museum

1950s swing dancing in the Museum

Poetry Night

This year’s event will be different again – a Poetry Night in association with Two Rivers Press, a local publisher whose archive we host.

We’ve hosted readings with them in the past but in moving the poetry night to the high profile ‘Museums at Night’ slot, we hope to open up what have been fairly niche events, to a much wider audience.

Looking back on experimental events

Our Museums at Night events have allowed us to experiment with formats and try out ideas we wouldn’t otherwise have risked.

Being part of a national campaign has given each event a platform and a head start in terms of marketing which means that on a very limited budget, for the events themselves and for the marketing, we have tried out new things, attracted new visitors, got ourselves mentioned in national media, and had a lot of fun in the process. So why not give it a go?

Find our more about MERL via their website, Facebook page and by following @MERLReading on Twitter.

A woman standing in front of wooden cartwheelsAlison Hilton is the Marketing Officer for the University of Reading’s Museums and Special Collections, based at the Museum of English Rural Life. After a brief stint as a secondary school teacher, she began her marketing career at ‘The Mathworks,’  then worked on the launch of the OED Online at Oxford University Press. She has worked at MERL since 2006.


Thanks, Alison! If you’d like to write a guest post or case study for this blog about any aspect of event planning or marketing in arts or heritage venues, please drop me a line at or call me on 01273 623336.

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